Local resident recalls horror crash

Horrific scenes at the site of what has been described as the worst of its kind in that area. Mrs Beverley Preston was a passenger in one of the worst affected carriages.

Photographs of an historic rail derailment in a recent edition of the Narrandera Argus stirred up memories for Narrandera woman Beverley Preston, who as a seven year old child was a passenger on the train with her mother Nancy Gwendoline George (nee Pascoe Webbe).

They were travelling to Narrandera on the train.

“I was shaking when I saw the photographs – it brought back memories of a very traumatic experience,” she said.

She vividly recalled coming to and seeing bodies everywhere.

Five years ago when she visited the Junee Rail Museum she had that same eerie feeling when she went through one of the carriages that had been on the train that fatal day.

Her family tell her she must have nine lives, as a couple of years later Mrs Preston had another traumatic experience.

As a child living at Tuggerah a small plane carrying a doctor crash-landed in the backyard of her home.

The Avro Anson crashed in the back yard of her family home at Tuggerah Lakes in the early hours of the morning. The home was located alongside a disused emergency strip.

Her mother Nancy George happened to be looking out of the kitchen window at the time and was horrified to see the aircraft descending low over the tree tops before impacting with the ground.

The plane, piloted by Dr M Hall of Toowoomba, crashed into a fence. He and his passengers escaped unhurt.

Shortly after passing Newcastle engine trouble developed but as Dr Hall retained height at 4000 feet on one engine, he hoped to reach Bankstown safely. Before the plane was inland from Wyong, the second engine began to splutter and Dr Hall swung towards the coast in search of an emergency landing ground.

With both engines gone, he noticed the Tuggerah strip and started to glide but did not notice the fences until too late. He managed to “lift” the fully laden machine over one fence, but the tail struck the top of a fence, skidded off the strip and crashed into another fence. The plane was badly damaged, but the eight occupants stepped from the plane unhurt.

However, it’s the memories of the Rocky Ponds Rail Disaster near Harden that still lives on in Mrs Preston’s mind like it was yesterday.

It remains the worst of its kind in the area, having claimed four lives and injured 30 people.

On June 30 1948 a crowded South-West mail train was taking a bend, when the crew began to understand that something was amiss.

At that time, the 38-Class locomotive began to tilt sideways, and soon began its 30 foot fall down the embankment. The two freight vans immediately behind it were smashed as they followed the engine’s descent.

The carriage behind the vans was catapulted over the engine, smashing to the ground further down the bank.

The engine itself had been overturned, with its smoke funnel buried in the earth and wheels in the air. The second carriage was slanted downhill, while another had smashed into the rear of a freight van, inserting itself almost half way.

More than 90 metres from the engine lay another carriage on its side, apparently almost somersaulting.

The train was driven by Ernest Nolan of Goulburn and he was pinned under a heap of coal but was rescued by the train’s fireman George Jefferies. Mr Nolan suffered cuts to his eyes.

The South-West Mail was being followed by another train and someone was sent to the Rocky Ponds Railway Siding to call the next station and stop it.

A relief train was sent from Harden to bring the survivors into town. The refreshment room staff remained on duty for the entire day, preparing 200 meals for teams of men who were clearing the wreckage and repairing the railway.

For all its tragedy, the accident was quite the spectacle and a great source of curiosity for many residents of the district.

It was determined that the derailment was caused by the spreading of a rail over a worn out old sleeper.

The area where the accident occurred had many worn sleepers and it was believed that heavy rains caused a bolt to loosen from the sleeper. One of the rails was torn from the track in the course of the accident, embedding itself in the locomotive.

The Temora Mail had passed through the area only half an hour before without incident. At the time of the accident, it was the worst NSW had seen in 22 years.

It claimed the lives of Mrs Jane Matilda Burns of Leeton, Keith Shuttleworth of Leeton, S B Welsh of Narrandera and Arthur Churchin of Braidwood. The coroner W H Powell ruled their deaths accidental.

The casualties were four killed and 19 treated at Harden Hospital. Of the 19, one was flown to Sydney for specialist orthopaedic treatment and 12 were admitted. The others were treated and discharged.

Only one of the injured was described as serious. All the injured made a full recovery, a result that the coroner credited to Dr Cyril Macintosh who was a passenger in the EAM sleeper. He was described as the ideal doctor to have on a mass casualty accident site.

It was reported at the time that “blood plasma” was flown from Sydney to Cootamundra, then transported by wagon to Harden in order to treat some of the injured.

It took authorities a week for two 70-ton cranes from Enfield and Broadmeadow to reach the scene and lift the train back on the tracks. It was described as being the one of the biggest weight-lifting jobs undertaken in NSW at the time. The tender was also returned to the tracks.

Cleaning up the Rocky Ponds rail crash site near Harden. Four people were killed and 30 injured.

The project was watched by more than 1500 people, with some travelling over 100 miles to observe it.

District Coroner Mr W H Powell held an inquest into the death of the woman and three men killed in the crash at the Murrumburrah Court House. It ended on July 29 1948.

He returned a finding that the deaths were brought about by injuries accidentally received when the South-West Mail train was derailed, brought about by a break in the rail down line.

It is believed that to this day people can still see where the steel wheels gouged the boulders at the crash site. They are fading but still visible 70 years later.

The 3817 or “Hoodoo” or “Voodoo” engine as it was referred to by railway employees, had an unfortunate career, as it was also involved in other accidents.

On October 30 1959 near Aylmerton the 3817 hauling No 128 fast stock train stopped in a cutting due to torrential rainfall. The crew tried to reverse the locomotive out of the cutting without success, and sensing danger, left the locomotive and walked to a safe position.

Shortly after, a wall of water around four feet high flooded the cutting, washing away the embankment under the locomotive, which slid nose-first into the resulting hole at 45 degrees.

On August 23 1963 at Geurie the 3817 hauling No 58 Mail collided at speed with Garratt 6003 which was shunting and partially fouled the main line.

3817 was called the ‘Voodoo’ engine because of its major accidents and withdrawn from service immediately.

In November 2012 Trevor Edmonds stated that there were in fact four incidents in which the 3817 was involved. There was also one at Eveleigh Depot in 1949. It did not get publicity because it was out of public view, but the damage was worse than Aylmerton.

The chronology for Aylmerton was the train came out of Aylmerton Tunnel and ran into water on the embankment. The driver slowed and then stopped when he felt what was probably ballast on the rails.

The 3806 was approaching with the South West Mail. 3817’s driver tried to stop 3806 by whistling, but was ignored. The four foot wave was the wake from the South-West Mail. There was then some subsidence and the unsuccessful attempt by 3817 to back out. The crew then abandoned the locomotive and climbed the cutting just before the big washaway.

The reason the driver of 3806 ignored the warning? The train had been hit with a mudslide. It is believed its driver was trying to get a train full of injured and very wet passengers to Mittagong for help. He could not afford to stop.

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